I had a good talk with a GetUp (the group trying to lead a unionization effort of grad students at UPenn) and an AFT representative (the larger union body with whom GetUp is partnered). We talked for over an hour, I learned a lot and I expressed what a union could do for me as well as what I am concerned about with unionization.

This is the meat of our conversation, with my thoughts interspersed:

  1. Contracts expire rather frequently (every 3 or 4 years) allowing new terms to be decided as the people change over.
    • This is important to me, things change and here, people are supposed to leave. We should not be imposing our will on new students for an undo period of time.
  2. They don’t consider “Management” to be anyone below the dean-ish level (I don’t think that is formalized though). Certainly, your PI is not “Management”.
    • My relationship with my PI is of utmost importance, so it is critical that this process not damage that
  3. Their major concerns are not financial, they seem really worried about stuff like grievance procedures, loss of benefits if injured/ill, etc…
    • This is good, I was worried that too many of their concerns would be overly petty. But they seem serious.
  4. They say they are committed to not getting involved in intra-departmental affairs (I should still be able to go talk to my PI, grad group chair, maybe even dean).
    • I have appreciated the flexibility in my department, it is not ok for an external group to jump in there.
  5. I brought up the way that our grant system works as the biggest concern I have at Penn (very high indirects, with no lab kickbacks).
    • They seemed less aware of this, but it seemed like that was why they were talking to me, to find out more about this sort of thing.
  6. They are totally opposed to letting individual departments opt out, they have all sorts of reasons surrounding not looking fractured, standing in solidarity, we are not defined as members of a dept, but rather as Penn students, etc…
    • I don’t buy these arguments. I see where they are coming from, but I don’t think it is “democratic” (which is what they claim they want) to force groups to be members that do not want to be.
  7. The expectation is that you are only paying dues when you get a W2, which only happens when TAing
    • I want to check on the validity of that.
    • It is still unclear as to where dues would come from.
  8. I expressed that Columbia and NYU are meaningless to me as examples, if they want to talk about prior examples, talk about the UC system.
  9. They gave some examples of prior attempts at smaller groups of students (physics and math together, I think) organizing and not getting what they wanted.
    • That is great and all, but even with a union, you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes what you want isn’t actually good for the university.
  10. They pointed out that strikes are incredibly rare and generally need an overwhelming authorization by members to occur (they pointed to >90% for the teacher strikes in either Chicago or Detroit, I don’t remember which)
    • That is comforting, but it is not formal.
  11. We talked about why the university doesn’t want a union. Their theory is that the board of trustees doesn’t want to loose any power, that it is not really about money. But labor laws prevent the university from telling us why they don’t want a union. They pointed me to some videos from on boarding at HomeDepot, Walmart, Target, etc… that have the same message as Amy’s e-mail.
    • We all agreed it would be great to be able to suspend those labor laws in a room for a few hours and hear what Amy Gutman, et al have to say, but that is not in our power.
  12. I expressed that it isn’t good enough to say “it will be great, we will figure it out”. That I need “we can’t guarantee anything, but here are our goals”. They said they are working on that.
  13. They said that they have their organization contract on their website.
    • I need to go read it
  14. They said that they have not talked to enough engineers yet, but they are working on it, they want to know what we need and they want us at the table.
    • It certainly seemed that they were genuine in this
  15. They said that they intend to have full proportional representation within the union (but again, not really formalized). So even if all of the arts folks show up and only 5 engineers show up, the engineers will carry the full weight of their school in determining what is asked for in contract negotiations.
    • This would be good, I think we can see that the liberal arts folks show up in greater numbers for this sort of thing than do the engineers.
  16. They said they will not hold a vote which they do not think they can win. But that they are under a tight timeline thanks to the open seats on the Labor Board
  17. They said they want as high of voter turnout as possible to have a clearly representative mandate.
  18. They gave the hotel workers of NY as a great example of a non-homogenous union (front desk clerk, dish washer, and building engineer are all in the same union)
    • This is interesting, since it is one of my big problems with lumping us all into a union together.
  19. I expressed to them that as an engineer, unions are always a sore spot. They said they had not heard this sort of thing before.
    • I have family that have had terrifying experiences with union workers while in engineering management.
    • Even in the lab at the hospital, we have to jump through hoops thanks to union rules.
    • I think there is a definite lack of understanding of how a union can go sideways.
  20. They constantly re-iterated that the union does not want to make life harder.
    • I think that they are genuine, but they just can’t guarantee anything.
  21. Union dues will probably be between 1.5-2%.
    • It is really tough to know the exact number that gives in dollars, since I don’t know the pay of students and what probability there is of a student in each group TAing in any given semester.
  22. Until an initial contract is agreed to by all parties, current procedures stay in place, no worries about freezes of pay increases or any of that.
  23. They brought up a lot of problems with healthcare for people on external fellowships.
    • This may be of concern to me. I have to get a better understanding of how things work now.
  24. I expressed that before I would vote for a union I would want to be able to convince my PI that it is best for all of us. She has a lot of experience and I value her opinion. I asked for some literature to discuss with her, they said they would get that together and e-mail it over.
  25. I expressed frustration with the NoPennUnion folks as asking the wrong questions with poor delivery, they obviously agreed.
  26. We discussed a bit more of the logistics of unionization.
  27. I carefully read the authorization card, but could not take a picture of it, nor keep one.
    • It still blows my mind that the thing isn’t public, that looks really bad for them.
    • The language in the card is very one sided supporting them. I don’t want to trade so much for so little.
  28. I expressed that I felt their tactics against some in my cohort had been dishonest and/or extreme.
    • They said it was possible that people had misunderstood something or it was possible that someone misspoke. But I think that even they don’t fully appreciate what that authorization card says.
    • They came and knocked on my door, but I am totally fine with that. I chose to invite them in and we had a long productive conversation. I know that bothers other people, but I should say it does not bother me.

Questions I am left with:

  1. If later we decide to disband the union, can that be done?
  2. What has happened at the UC schools as a result of the union?

Some general final thoughts that I have:

  1. These two people were much more put together than the other people that I have talked to (I have some theories as to why).
  2. I think that the union is being rushed because of the Labor Board stuff, and that is a shame. I am not totally opposed to a union, but we should look at all other options first. A union really is the nuclear option.
  3. I really wish there were a way to sit in Amy’s office and listen to them discuss why they don’t want a union
  4. I would love to see the union bind themselves to some things, like no matter what happens down the road, we will not strike without >90% of voting members (nominally, none of that only 10 people voted nonsense) voting in favor of a strike.
    • I find it striking that the union authorization card gives over all of this power without binding the union to anything at all. It isn’t as far as I can tell binding them to even work in my best interest (as determined by an impartial judge or something).